LONDON — When Roman Abramovich took over at Chelsea last July the club was on the verge of administration.
The Russian was hailed as a savior, and the biggest wallet football has ever known created its own transfer market with around £120 million invested on new recruits, to date.
Abramovich, a quiet and private man, has never been interviewed, preferring to let his money do his talking, though what it says has become a matter of debate as manager Claudio Ranieri prepares to walk the plank this summer.
Money can buy many things but it cannot buy style. Eight months after his arrival, the perception of Team Abramovich has shifted — while grateful for his financial backing, supporters are becoming increasingly unhappy with the back-stabbing at Stamford Bridge, not least the public humiliation of the extremely popular Ranieri.
There have been more leaks from Chelsea in recent weeks than any government and Ranieri said before the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinal against Arsenal on Wednesday that he knew, “within days” of the Russian Revolution, that whatever the team achieved this season, he would be out of a job.
As Ranieri, who has three years remaining on his contract, will leave with a payoff of around £4.5 million with another well-paid job to walk into, sympathy must be tempered. In the real world those fired do not receive such a golden handshake when shown the door.
But the Italian, a thoroughly decent, honest and engaging man, does not deserve to be treated in such an undignified manner.
Ranieri can also claim with justification he does not deserve to be booted out, either.
Chelsea is second behind the Dream Team that is Arsenal with 63 points, only four fewer than the Blues won last season and there are nine Premier League matches remaining.
Since the Premiership began, only four teams have a better record than Ranieri’s side after 29 games — one wonders how Abramovich would have reacted last August had he been told Chelsea would be three points ahead of Manchester United, with nine matches remaining and in the quarterfinals of the Champions League, too.
In a “normal” season without Arsenal rewriting the record books, Chelsea would be heading toward the Premiership title. If Chelsea wins 20 points from a possible 27 the rest of the way, it would finish with 83 points — the same total United accumulated last season in winning the Premiership.
So why have the knives been sharpened and plunged?
Team Abramovich probably decided soon after the takeover that Ranieri was not the Hollywood star it wanted, while success has too often been at the expense of style.
Winning is not necessarily the ultimate entertainment, and Ranieri’s teams have been guilty of going out with the intention of playing not to lose, rather than playing to win.
Chelsea has had clean sheets in more than half of its matches this season and, though such parsimony has seen it overtake United in the league and advance in Europe, when the owner has spent £120 million on home entertainment, he expects passion to go with points.
Ranieri’s random team selections and tactical tinkering have also confused his own team as much as the opposition.
Arsenal, AC Milan and Real Madrid, probably the three best sides in Europe at the moment, have a stable selection policy and rarely change the way they play.
That said, the case for Ranieri’s defense is strong in every respect yet he said: “I always knew that even if I won everything from July 1, I could go home (be fired).”
Firing a manager is one thing, but it is not rocket science to realize that the deep throats at Stamford Bridge would have been better keeping mum until the end of the season.
Instead the media has been tipped off with Chelsea then saying it didn’t know where such stories have come from.
Former chairman Ken Bates spoke of the “different culture” at the club now and it is a culture that is making few friends.
The suspicion is, that with unlimited finances, Chelsea has become arrogant. It has a billionaire owner for whom money is no object — what Chelsea wants it will get.
But will it?
The decision to replace Ranieri may have been made, but no replacement has been lined up, which hardly smacks of good business practice.
Two weeks ago Bayern Munich’s Ottmar Hitzfeld told a German newspaper he had turned down the chance to join Chelsea, which issued a denial that it had ever spoken to the coach — effectively calling him a liar.
This correspondent understands it was Chelsea which turned down Hitzfeld, because he wanted only a two-year contract taking him to 2006, when Rudi Voeller is expected to step down as Germany manager.
Among others mentioned are AC Milan’s Carlo Ancelotti, whose team put on a master class of attacking football as it beat Deportivo La Coruna 4-1 in midweek.
Why would Ancelotti want to leave the European Champion — favorite to retain its crown — which is also walking away with the Serie A this season?
Ancelotti has some of the best players in the world at his disposal, including Kaka, a Brazilian midfielder whose display against Deportivo was breathtaking.
The coach does not speak English, so what would entice him to give up all this for Chelsea?
He is earning a king’s ransom in Milan and Ancelotti has no doubt seen how the Chelsea power brokers have treated his fellow countryman Ranieri, which has not been the best of public relations exercises.
Ditto Fabio Capello at AS Roma or Marcello Lippi at Juventus.
Sven-Goran Eriksson’s shadow still looms over Ranieri, but the England coach knows that if he walks out on the country he will be labeled a traitor, no matter happens at Euro 2004, and does he need the boos that would greet him each week with a Premiership club?
A more realistic choice could be Jose Mourinho of FC Porto, who outfoxed Sir Alex Ferguson as the Portuguese champion knocked Manchester United out of the Champions League.
Mourinho speaks excellent English and, while he might not be the perceived big name in European coaching terms, perhaps it is better to get such a man and hope he joins the true elite with you.
It remains to be seen whether the Ranieri revelations will unsettle the team as the season enters its final furlong.
The players and supporters are backing the manager, and Chelsea had better find a replacement who will appease the fans or else there could be another revolution at Stamford Bridge.
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